Comment Blog 29 May, 2024

Should we kick the manifesto habit?

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

Should we kick the manifesto habit?

In a matter of days, the years of wonk-work that’s been going on behind the scenes will bear fruit, and the think tank world will explode into life to analyse 2024’s crop of general election manifestos. There will be gimmicks, rabbits pulled out of hats and endless arguments about whether some of the ideas add up. There will be genuine doubt over whether any of it will have any impact at all on the outcome of the election itself.

We don’t usually spend a lot of time reflecting on the role that manifestos play in our politics and policy. This is strange because the role is significant. They are often the central talking points of election campaigns, a roadmap for policy in office and grist for the mill of the reporters and analysts who will instantaneously scrutinise every proposal within them.

In some countries manifesto-style documents can be quite technical. They are used to substantiate campaign-trail ideas or provide the basis for expected coalition talks, for example in Germany, where the ultimate ‘coalition agreement’ document is taken much more seriously. In others, such as the USA, parties publish platforms, pamphlets or statements of vision with varying degrees of specificity, intended for the campaign trail and not taken all that literally once government is formed.

In the UK, the evident expectation is that manifesto policies should serve both roles simultaneously. Manifestos are both the single most important advertisement for the party in question and a constitutionally important programme for government — determining, for example, which policies can or cannot be legitimately blocked by the House of Lords during legislative process. So, impossibly, manifesto policies are expected to be:

  • Attention-grabbing
  • Fully costed
  • Comprehensive
  • Clearly implementable

There are two main reasons for this beyond the peculiarities of British political culture.

First and foremost, our ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system makes hung parliaments — and therefore coalition government — very unlikely. There is no general expectation that political parties will come together to hash out a programme for government. On the one recent occasion that this has happened the resulting coalition agreement was treated as having lower status in constitutional terms than the individual party manifestos.

Second, the manifesto habit is another testament to how very centralised our country is. In many other parts of the world, local candidates and leaders would receive more attention and have more direct powers, meaning less emphasis is placed on the plans and promises made by national parties.

In short: manifestos matter here. All the more when you care about ambitious policy making and the need for a genuine mandate.


Getting ambitious (circumstances allowing)

Do manifestos help improve policy?

On the one hand, the promises made in 2024 may have almost no bearing on the actual circumstances — the ‘events, dear boy, events’ — that will influence our system in the four or five years ahead. In this sense they are the ultimate hostages to fortune: treated with the reverence of unbreakable promises but ultimately set aside when a foreign war provokes an inflation crisis or a global pandemic paralyses the nation.

This responsiveness in the face of reality is desirable. The government that ‘stays the course’ despite drastically shifting context will struggle mightily. But our political system is set up to punish those who ‘abandon’ a manifesto commitment. We don’t call it flexibility or changing your mind to match the facts. We call it U-turn.

On the other hand, making explicit commitments to an electorate as the premise of taking office, and forming a government with the commitment to deliver on them, is surely the only plausible beginning to genuinely long-term action on ambitious policy goals.

When the next government sets about a series of major ‘missions’ (as most people expect that it will), it will need to do so from a strong starting-point of setting out its plans for public debate. Which brings us to…


Mandate and legitimacy

Manifestos represent one of the key intersections between public opinion and policy development, which can at times feel like a firmly technocratic exercise. The mandate accrued to the policies in an electorally successful party’s manifesto can, in the British system, move mountains. The House of Lords will get out of your way. Your parliamentary party will get in line. The civil service will review the proposals, even as the election campaign is underway, to discuss options for implementation.

The manifesto’s ability to be an engine of legitimacy is strange when we think of the actual numbers involved. When New Labour returned to power for its third term in office in 2005 it brought with it a little over one third of the electorate — only three points clear of the Conservatives — and fewer than ten million voters. When the Conservatives won with their similarly convincing majority in 2019 they did so with nearly 14 million voters — something of a recent high water mark. In both cases the commitments in the manifestos were quickly set aside in the face of changing context. But for a while their manifesto priorities were effectively unstoppable.

While this mandate factor remains true, Britain’s manifesto habit will persist — and we will still see whole programmes for government developed with limited expert input… and still used as a stick to beat the government of the day with when plans inevitably change.